Autumn of the Amputation, Part III

Unfortunately, Phil has a slew of cartoonist and graphic designer friends. It’s because he’s a cartoonist and graphic designer and so it can’t be helped. Like all creatives, they are an odd bunch. On discovering Phil was losing a leg, one cartoonist suggested he begin cultivating a pirate look and should perhaps lose an eye as well, or at least a hand. Another thought he should ask to keep the leg, which might be mummified and hung in the living room as a mobile. A conversation starter, for sure. “Eew,” I said. “Well, then,” this friend compromised, “how about keeping the bone?”

A graphic designer raised the idea of having a funeral for the leg. You know, as a way of processing the loss. I pointed out that Santa Anna did have a funeral for his, with cannon salvos, poetry, and burial beneath a monument, but Santa Anna was the Mexican president at the time. I don’t think we have the army to pull that off. Phil proclaimed, “there will be no services for this leg: this leg and I have a long and miserable history. It has caused me no end of pain.” “Oh, I see,” said the graphic designer, “you’re divorcing it.”

At first, there was this huge splint and dressing and limited mobility and I had to do everything. He was forbidden to do stairs, was mostly confined to the wheelchair. Our bedroom’s up 16 narrow steps with a turn and the first nights I felt as abandoned as if he’d left me. In the wheelchair, he couldn’t reach into the pantry or fridge, or get to the sink. For nearly two weeks, everything he ate depended on me.

But now sutures and staples and unwieldy dressing are gone. He takes his own seated shower. We’re in the shrinker sock stage, the incision healing nicely. Phil hops around in the walker all the time, goes in and out of the house and last week I caught him fixing his own lunch. Nourishment unauthorized and undelivered by me. Wait a minute.

Certainly taking care of an invalid gets old, but total control is addictive. I find myself a bit put out by his being able to get his own food again. Likewise the idea of his moving back upstairs. I’ve become accustomed to having my own bathroom. Look how neat it is now, and roomy, with all the shaving gear and other guy stuff gone downstairs. For his part, Phil likes the moveable hospital bed, and has taken to sleeping with both head and foot of the thing raised, creating a kind of hammock. Nor is he unhappy with having the TV at the foot of his bed. (TV in the bedroom is where I draw the line. Not happening.)

Six weeks out from surgery, although the stairs are a major effort he has to do on his butt, he has been up and down them without much trouble. He’s been cast for the first temporary prosthesis, so a new phase is coming in two weeks. We’re both wearying of separate accommodations and the bed in the living room, yearning for a return to normal.

This life-changing event is far from over. Three words: phantom limb pain. Because I’m not experiencing it, I tend to think, “but that’s not real.” Pain, however, is pain. And the brain, the nerves, have known there’s a left foot and ankle all these years and aren’t about to surrender the concept now. Neural pathways insist on creating virulent sensations, perhaps in angry frustration at not finding the limb they bonded with all those years ago. Phil says things like, “my unfoot is in a vice and someone’s drilling into its big toe,” or “pins and needles are jabbing into my unankle.” The pain, my friends, is real, and relief through narcotic prescriptions is sporadic at best. For most people, phantom limb pain fades in time, a year or so. Pray that Phil’s brain is among the fast learners.

In the meantime, however, to answer a few repeated questions: no, he will not be taller. He could not run marathons before and will not run them now. An artificial left leg does not magically change the length or character of the right leg or its owner. And, for the moment, he’s going to pass on the pirate schtick.

Posted in Humor, Memoir | 8 Comments

2014 Moments I’m Thankful For, Interspersed with Food

It’s been one month since Phil’s left leg was amputated below the knee. Since then, our friends have been splendid. I sent a group email: “surgery went well. We’re going home. Food welcome.” The first day, Eric moved furniture to make room for the hospital bed, Judy called, said, “go look in your mailbox,” where we found a warm zucchini bread and Kitty and Richard brought Thai takeout…

January. I unthinkingly park on ice, heading uphill. Trying to leave, my wheels spin. Men walk past, on their phones. I spin again. A pretty young Latina says cheerfully, “I can try to push you.” When she does, two men stop—shamed into it, I imagine—and in moments free me. I pull away, yelling thanks, but they and my pretty Latina are already on their separate ways.

… Alice baked lasagna, some to eat now, some to freeze, Michael made banana bread cake and sister Susan sent a ham and a cheesecake, pears and truffles. Miki and Thad sent a box of caramel corn, sausage and cheese…

February. On my walk, I turn down my home street the same time as a black guy in wool cap and fatigue jacket, carrying a bag from the recently re-opened Lincoln Market. Since we’re walking together, I ask how the store is and chitchat ensues. At the icy intersection with 26th, he holds out a gentlemanly arm, which I take. “If we fall,” he says jovially, “we fall together.”

…Jim and Carol sent mustard and relish and sausage, cheese and crackers; Janet and Ella brought butternut squash vegetable soup and salad and pumpkin pie, daughter Snow had a German chocolate birthday cake delivered to the house and sent a card that brought tears to her father’s eyes…

March. I proctor standardized testing makeup, an onerous task for students. They missed the test because they were sick and half of them are wheezing and sniffing still. They have to miss class for this, get behind, but nonetheless, as they finish and hand me their tests, they say, “thank you.”

…Paige and Tom brought apples and lentil soup and zucchini bread, Linda fixed roast pork and green bean and potato salad, Kathleen came with a roast chicken, coleslaw, apples and caramel sauce…

July. I complained that it was Saturday, we were entitled to dessert and didn’t have any. As I went outside, Phil said, “if you see Jenn, ask her if she knows of dessert delivery services.” “Sure,” I retorted, “like that exists.” But Jenn’s getting in her truck and for the hell of it, I ask her. Turns out she’s going to Olive & Finch and would be happy to pick up something. Which she does. And then refuses to take payment. Research shows that having good neighbors improves your health. I get that.

…Alice returned with Chinese chicken and rice, Bob T with calzones for lunch, Bob J with almond croissants for mid-morning coffee, Martin with bagels, lox and cream cheese…

August. We found our lunch choices uninspiring. Phil said, “let’s go to the pub.” Two blocks away, at the Whittier Pub we cover the horrors in today’s news, our disgust with the do-nothing Congress, what kind of world our grandchildren will live in, with climate change, etc. A song comes on, one we haven’t heard in decades. What are the chances we’d hear it right now? Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

…Marilyn and Kathryn brought dessert pastries, Dennis appeared like a whirlwind and transported Phil’s computer workstation downstairs, Jean brought her homemade chili and all the toppings, Eric and Jenn dropped off Rosenberg’s macaroons, Denise and Bill sent a giant frozen chicken pot pie…

September. At the gym, I look down on the street below and the office building opposite, where an older man in dark suit struggles to get his two-wheeled cart loaded with boxes up the dozen granite steps to the lobby doors. A young boy walking past—backpack, jeans, tan T-shirt—stops to look, then climbs the steps to lift the cart the rest of the way. The old man turns his back and hurries into the building, without a word from what I can see. The boy continues on his way. Boy in tan t-shirt, on a Thursday afternoon in September, know that your gesture touches me, and that it matters.

…Jerry came to shovel snow when it was five degrees, John and Diane baked an apple pie, brought it hot from the oven to our door, Kitty made lentil soup and Mike and Donna brought home-grown pesto and shrimp pasta, Barbara seafood soup and beef stew…

In the first hard weeks, when Phil could do little on his own, and my workload doubled, I never had to cook and we ate well and what a difference that made.

…Jenn raked our leaves twice already, neighbor Carson shoveled the next snow, Kendra came with scones and cinnamon rolls frozen for later and Bob T came for lunch again, with turkey burgers…

There’s no better support group than this intentional, accidental, karma-driven or God’s will collection of priceless people we have somehow acquired. And we’re still thunderstruck by it.





Posted in Memoir, Neighborhood | 4 Comments

A New Chapter

My cousin Charlie, a Nashville musician, was in a new second marriage years ago when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The new wife, who I never met, packed and left. I thought that was as rotten as it gets. Now that Phil and I are dealing with the aftermath of his left leg’s amputation, I feel slightly more charitable toward that woman.

Phil and I have thirty years together, the last four in close companionship after our partial retirements. We still work. We’ll always work: it’s what we love, who we are. I write, he draws and does graphic design. We just don’t have to make a living from it now. Working at home, we meet for lunch, when I bring the writing I’ve been doing—he’s an excellent editor—or we discuss an illustration he’s restoring, or read each other bits from The New Yorker.

Events like brain tumors or amputations can collapse a relationship without a solid foundation. When we found out about Phil’s leg, I’d just started teaching a writing class, my first since retiring. I’d just contracted to translate a book, my first major paying translation project. This man I love had developed osteomyelitis—an incurable bone infection—in the congenitally compromised bone of his left leg. If our bond had been fragile, I might have walked out like my cousin’s wife did.

There were months of doctor rounds: infectious disease doctors, orthopedic surgeons, rehabilitation specialists, second opinions. I went to every appointment. After the first consultation, Phil started saying, “We are concerned that…” Damn straight, darling. This thing is happening to us.

Reaching a decision exhausted a small eternity. Phil wanted to tell no one, “until we know what we’re doing.” I understood, but nearly burst before that period ended. You don’t need people to do much in such situations. What you need is someone to tell. Plight, like jubilation, yearns to be shared.

When we did tell friends and family, many were shocked by the plan. It dawned on me that they didn’t know how bad the leg was, in spite of knowing Phil all these years. He generally put a good face on the pain, managed to sit although everyone else at the party was standing. People remained oblivious. How could any normal-footed person appreciate the misery of walking on an angled, flat foot with no ankle mobility and a lower leg missing a bone, whose tibia was significantly curved? They considered amputation an extreme solution. But as one of the surgeons said, “it’s not like you have a good ankle or foot to save.”

When Phil went into surgery, our community stepped up: at least four major religious groups prayed for him, including a wonderful Muslim woman, and in her case, that meant four times a day. It helped. Surgery went well, the infection cut out, the knee saved. Infinitely better prosthesis possibilities thereby reside in our future. The first day home, I acquired equipment—wheelchair, walker, crutches, shower chair, bedside table, hospital bed—rearranged furniture. No stairs. He’ll live downstairs for a month or two. Our old house has 30” doorways. The wheelchair barely clears them. Phil had scraped knuckles by day two.

A week later, I took a brief walk and realized it was the first one I’d taken since surgery. A breeze sent leaves tapping over the street. A golden batch of cottonwood leaves fell like bright rain. It’d been four days since I washed my hair, a week since I tended my nails, two weeks since I wrote anything but emails. I postpone myself, behavior learned from my mother. Service was her lot and serve she did, to the end. But from her I also learned the dire consequences of reserving nothing for yourself: her bitterness and resentment, her inability to enjoy herself without guilt.

On Sunday, from seven until one I was mostly on my feet, fixing breakfast and lunch, cleaning up the kitchen, washing hospital bedding, helping Phil do physical therapy exercises, record medications taken, bath and dress. In the bathing process, we splashed water all over the bathroom floor and laughed a lot. Service given joyfully is a fine thing. I know this man intimately. Assisting with his intimate needs doesn’t faze me, but it’s not something a flimsy relationship is likely to survive.

After that long Sunday morning, I was done and had the sense to know it. I took my own shower, washed my hair, and then spent two hours putting words on paper, the essential ingredient of my wellbeing.

Phil has barely complained, even when down or in discomfort, and has had little serious pain. He’s constantly tackling the issues of being able to function independently and becomes a bit more independent every day. Appreciative of all I do for him, he reminds me to take time for myself. It’s not him, but my mother I must resist to do that.

We have months to go before a prosthetic can even be discussed. Our friends have delivered food to us almost daily and kept their visits brief and made this first phase of our new life feel not only supported, but nourished. Although certainly life-changing, nothing about this has ever been life-threatening. We are blessed.


Posted in Memoir, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Letting Off Steam

My fellow Americans, I don’t care how much you despise Obama’s being black, everything is not his fault. (And he’s half white, remember?) If you listen to conservatives you’d never know it, but, let me repeat: everything is not Obama’s fault. Let’s take a few examples, starting with scary diseases.

If it bleeds, it leads.

That motto is news business’ golden rule. All Ebola, all the time. Top of the news for weeks. This disease has been around for years, mainly in Africa. It’s not airborne, not that easy to catch. We have four cases here, brave, dedicated health care workers who have taken care of someone who had it, here or in Africa. You pretty much have to absorb a symptomatic person’s bodily liquids to get it. And it’s mainly in Texas, right? Here’s our chance to give Texas back to Mexico. I’ve been saying we should do that for years. I’d swap it for Baja in a minute.

When’s the last time you saw news coverage of Enterovirus D68? We’re currently having a nationwide outbreak of that. As of mid-October, we had 900 confirmed cases in 46 states. You’d think we could pay attention to that. You’d think politicians could ask, “what’s the most effective way to deal with this?” Instead, they ask, “how can we blame Obama and drum up fear to help our re-election campaign?”

The CDC, our national agency in charge of epidemics, is operating with $600 million less in its budget than it had in 2010. And a Surgeon General would be handy to have right now, wouldn’t you think? But the person Obama nominated a year ago still hasn’t been acted upon, because do-nothing Congress plans to leave key positions vacant, cut funding, and then blame Obama if government response isn’t instantaneous.

My fellow Americans, some services are best delivered by government. Hamstring those services and you hamstring society. Look at the attempt to privatize water in New York in the 1800s, for an historical example. There was a disaster. Look at our current privatization of prisons. We’re supposed to rehabilitate people, but if you’re a private entity and you need X number of people behind bars to make money… Hence, we now have more people in prison than any other country.

NIH has a vaccine center, developed a possible prototype Ebola vaccine years ago. Private industry had no interest in developing it, because NO PROFIT COULD BE MADE. Only now, under pressure, are big pharma companies finally working on the Ebola vaccine.

I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.          —Will Rogers

My fellow Democrats, you’re a bunch of wimps. You not only don’t support our President, you act like he has Ebola. I know what will happen once he’s out of office. All kinds of pundits will “discover” that Obama’s been a good president after all.

He’s cut the deficit more than in half. He saved the economy. Stimulus funds worked wonders, though no one hears about it. Unemployment is lower than it’s been in years. He passed Wall Street reform, to keep those criminals from doing that to us again. He reversed Bush torture policies. Maybe his biggest achievement, the ACA (aka Obamacare) has been working beautifully, driving costs down. My Colorado HMO has taken in over 60,000 new members because of the ACA, hard-working people who have been putting off cancer treatment or pacemaker replacement because they couldn’t afford it: in the U.S. of A., ordinary citizens unable to treat life-threatening conditions until Obamacare. It’s enough to make you weep.

In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt threatened owners with nationalizing their mines to force them to negotiate with miners, who worked long hours for low wages in unsafe conditions. Private enterprise puts profits first. If you want decent wages and working conditions, government must mediate to make that happen. If you want health care and education, government must make that happen or good health care and education will only be available to the rich. As we speak, worker rights are being eroded: jobs taken overseas or turned into contract positions, ALL FOR PROFIT MARGINS.

Oh, and you who whine about Obama’s golf games: as of this month, Obama had taken a total of 125 vacation days. At this same point in his presidency, George W. Bush had taken 407 vacation days.

Finally, Will Rogers again, our grand American humorist. He was talking about the crash of 1929, but you could easily apply this to the crash of 2008:

Sure must be a great consolation to the poor people who lost their stock in the late crash to know that it has fallen in the hands of Mr. Rockefeller, who will take care of it and see it has a good home and never be allowed to wander around unprotected again. There is one rule that works in every calamity. Be it pestilence, war, or famine, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The poor even help arrange it.

Only in our case, we have helped arrange for all the money to go to a dozen or so banks, corporations and billionaires, instead of just one—there’s “redistribution of wealth” for you.

Progress, huh?



Posted in Education, Humor, Uncategorized | 4 Comments